How Many Slave Narratives Were There?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Sizing up the genre from which an Oscar favorite originated.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 69: How often were enslaved Americans able to tell their stories?

A Best-Seller Once More

I have to pinch myself every time I’m told that the book 12 Years a Slave is holding steady on the New York Sunday Best Sellers List (incredibly, it was No. 3 last Sunday on the combined e-book/print non-fiction list). After all, Solomon Northup published his memoir 161 years ago, and it and the genre to which it belongs, the African-American slave narrative, were largely forgotten, devalued as literature or dismissed as valid historical evidence, until the first generation of black studies professors insisted on teaching them in the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, there were skeptics who felt that the slave narratives had little to no literary value, that if they were useful at all, it was for historical research, no different than sifting through a box of old newspapers and correspondence. Now, Northup’s autobiography is making the papers, and I say, if it took Steve McQueen’s brilliantly conceived film adaption to get people reading, amen.

At the same time, it’s important for modern audiences to know Solomon Northup’s memoir was a best-seller in his day, too. In fact, the publishers of 12 Years a Slave sold 10,000 copies within a month of its release in July 1853, and 30,000 copies in the first two years. While these weren’t Uncle Tom’s Cabin numbers (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel sold 300,000 copies in America in its first year alone), it dwarfed the sales of Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855: 795. And, historian David Fiske et al. tell us in their current biography of Northup, monies from the project helped Northup purchase real estate in upstate New York, where he had been born a free man and returned one after his nightmarish ordeal as a kidnapping victim sold into slavery in Louisiana. The fact that the edition of 12 Years a Slave published in my Black Classics series for Penguin Classics in 2012 has already sold 150,000 print and digital copies (with another edition on the way) is a testament to the power of Northup’s first-person account, then and now.   

So, How Many Others Told Their Stories?

It’s also important to remember Northup was far from the only memoirist in his genre. Perhaps you’ve read, or at least heard of, accounts by others: Olaudah Equiano (1789), Mary Prince (1831), Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs (1861), to name a few. While researcher Marion Wilson Starling put the total number of slave narratives at 6,000-plus in her 1946 dissertation, “The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History,” Starling’s number included everything from broadsides to court records and some 2,500 oral histories recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. For years, scholars in the field estimated a smaller but still impressive number of published slave narratives at around 100.

Now, thanks to my friend William L. Andrews and his colleagues at Doc South, an online archive hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we can put an exact number out there: 204. That’s right! From the height of the slave trade to the end of the Civil War in 1865, 102 known book-length slave narratives were written, with another 102 written by former slaves after the war. I encourage you to check out professor Andrews’ bibliography here, but keep in mind, it’s a provisional list, because you never know what might turn up in an attic, at auction, in a misplaced folder in a university library or at an out-of-the-way indie bookstore.

In my own travels, I’ve had the thrill of writing about the first African-American poet to publish a book of poems, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) and rediscovering the first novel published by an African-American woman writer, Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859; reissued with my introduction, notes and commentary in 1983, and then again in 2002 and 2011 with R.J. Ellis as my co-editor). And in 1998, professor Andrews and I published Pioneers of the Black Atlantic, the first anthology composed of the complete texts of five of the most influential narratives of the 18th and early 19th century, including the authors James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Ottobah, Olaudah Equiano and John Jea.

More recently, I purchased, authenticated and published in book form the manuscript of our earliest known African-American female novelist, the ex-slave Hannah Crafts. And recently, literary scholar Greg Hecimovich has found the true story and identity of the author of this novel, a runaway slave named Hannah Bond who took the name “Crafts” from the family who harbored her when she escaped from North Carolina to the North.

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